Last week we reviewed Dear Leader, a game about a delusional dictator. This week we review a game about espionage. Is this becoming a series of geopolitical board game reviews? Will Risk be next? Who knows!
Codenames, by Czech game designer Vlaada Chvátil, is a game where two rival spymasters take turns trying to get their teams to correctly identify all of their agents using only their secret codenames.
The game is setup with a random 5×5 grid of codename cards containing words such as: forest, Canada, opera, suit, and centaur. A tile revealed only to the spymasters shows the true identities of the codenames, each of which represents either a red agent, blue agent, neutral person, or assassin.
Each spymaster takes turns giving their team one word and one number. The word can be anything not in the codenames, and the number represents how many of the codenames that spymaster thinks correlates to their agents. The team then gets the number plus one guesses as to which codenames represent their agents. With each guess, the team’s spymaster places the appropriate allegiance card on top of the codename. The team’s turn ends on any wrong guess (neutral, other team’s agent, or assassin) or if they voluntarily pass. If the team picks the forbidden assassin, they immediately lose the match.
Codenames requires some creativity on the part of the spymasters and players, who must attempt to divine the links between words to maximize correct guesses and minimize incorrect ones. For instance, “opera” and “dance” could be linked with “Music: 2” meaning there are two words on the board for our team’s agents that have to do with music. However, spymasters must take care to avoid drawing any attention to the assassin.
The game has plenty of randomness, so its re-playability is huge: no two games will ever be the same. Each match takes about 15 minutes, too, so there isn’t a huge time commitment. The teams can also be quite large and flexible in size, so it makes for a good party game.
There are very few complaints with this game. One drawback is the difficulty of a comeback. If one team has identified six of their agents and the other only has four, a loss can feel inevitable. A lucky draw of easily-related codenames can also make one team’s road to victory a lot easier. These drawbacks are mitigated by the brief playtime, however. If one round goes sour you won’t have to wait long for a rematch.
The cards are good quality stock and the art is colorful.
Overall, Codenames is a bargain between $15 and $25 (via Amazon).